Deborah Baker

I was torn this evening. On the one hand, Deborah Baker was making a rare appearance in the Twin Cities in support of her 2011 National Book Award finalist The Convert (Graywolf Press). No doubt she’d have Common Good Books hopping with fans, readers, and a solid cohort of Graywolf personnel. Just down the road, however, Peter Geye was reading at SubText: A Bookstore in support of his recently released and much-buzzed-about The Lighthouse Road (Unbridled Books).  There are few novels I’m more excited about than this one, and this would be a chance to hear him read from it before it starts garnering awards of its own.  What’s a lit-lover to do?

I weighed the pros, the cons, I listened to my heart, I listened to my brain, I listened to my stomach (I’d skipped dinner) as I sat in traffic on the way toward one or the other of these sure-to-be-amazing readings.In the end, a few factors conspired to convince me that this, the 6th of December, 2012, would be Deborah Baker’s night: 1) Peter Geye’s name dots the Twin Cities Literary Calendar next month (I’ve got the reading with Thomas Maltman circled), 2) Deborah Baker lives in New York (she splits time between the city and India, I would later learn), but perhaps more importantly, 3) The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism is a fantastic book.

The-Convert-by-Deborah-BakerCommon Good Books had their usual set-up in place toward the back of the store, but it was evident when I walked in the door that this wasn’t a normal event. The Graywolf brass were well represented: director and publisher Fiona McCrae, associate publisher Katie Dublinski, development and managing director Kit Briem, senior editor Jeff Shotts, marketing director Michael Taeckens, associate editor Steve Woodward, publicity director Erin Kottke, marketing and publicity associate Marisa Atkinson, administrative assistant Casey Peterson, and development associate Josh Ostergaard were all in attendance. Also present were Llewellyn marketing divas Anastasia Scott and Bethany Onsgard, with whom I chatted as we took our seats, casually migrating away from the nice spread of finger foods and wine. Fiona McCrae gave a nice introduction and explained that the reading would follow a conversation format: Deborah Baker would be joined by Tony Cunningham from the College of St. Benedict, whose Literary Arts Institute sponsored the event.

Cunningham and Baker took their seats and navigated a variety of topics hinging on Baker’s writing and research process for the book (The Convert is a biography of Maryam Jameelah née Margaret Marcus, a woman who suffered from psychological discomfort until she decided to convert to Islam and move to Pakistan in the 1950s.  Jameelah recently died at the age of 90, without regretting her decision). The discussion was at times practical, at times philosophical. Baker gave the standing-room audience plenty of food for thought in describing the thousands of hours Baker spent poring over archives of Jameelah’s writings to her inner turmoil over the question of authority–can anyone claim they are the final authority on their life, let alone a biographer? Working on this book in 2007, Baker found a compelling counter narrative to the one pervading American media in the subject of Margaret Marcus’s transition to Islam. “She forced me to look at my country in a way I wasn’t used to, and during a time when no one else was asking these questions,” Baker said, referring to the radical portrayal of Muslims in the media. A recurring theme of Baker’s reflection on the book was that, while American medical and religious institutions treated Margaret Marcus as a misfit who needed medication or, at times, commitment to an insane asylum, she was able to lead a comfortable and productive life on her own terms in a different culture.

You're not keeping my pen, Deborah Baker.

You’re not keeping my pen, Deborah Baker.

After an informed and intelligent Q&A, the Common Good staff swiftly removed the chairs to make way for a bit more socializing. Baker didn’t do the normal “sit down and sign books while people wait in a line” thing, instead allowing those of us with souvenirs to approach her. She was more than willing to sign the book (which, if I’m not mistaken, was color-coordinated with her eyeglasses), so long as you had a pen she could borrow. She promised to give it back, even if it was a very nice pen.

–RHM

Were you There? Have something to add, or a different take on this event?  Chime in on the comments below, or send us an email at LitSeen.Mpls@gmail.com! Be sure to check the schedule to the right and the Twin Cities Literary Calendar to be at the next LitSeen.org attended event. See you around!

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